Francis Humphry: A modest champion of the arts

Francis Humphrys tells Nicki ffrench Davis about overseeing Bantry’s three summer festivals

DIRECTOR of West Cork Music Francis Humphrys personifies the passion and commitment that heading a major festival demands.

The book of programme notes he prepares for each West Cork Chamber Music Festival is for many the starting point of its magic. “Well, there are approximately 110 works in this year’s festival and all have to have a note in the programme,” Humphrys shrugs. “I write some of them myself and draw on ones I’ve written in the past and I find some other people to write them too. It’s quite an exercise and it takes most of the month of May.”

It’s worth it, of course, but perhaps that’s easier to say in hindsight than when faced with the blank page and the need to say something new each time. “The big fat book is a nice record to have when it’s all over. The process of research often leads me to ideas for the future. Given that I spend so much of my time seeking funding it is nice to be forced to tackle the music.”

Humphrys describes his background today as farming but, if pushed, he will admit that he studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, followed by a doctorate at the London School of Economics. It’s typical bedrock for a career politician or diplomat, but Humphrys wasn’t led down that particular path. “I spent all my spare time and money in concert halls and opera houses.”

He did a stint for the Freehold Theatre Company in London and then somehow found his way to Ireland, set on becoming a farmer.

“Music was always a useless obsession, good for the brain but not much else. Then in 1992 it became a useful hobby,” he says. Craving great music in the wilds of his new territory, Humphrys brought the mountain to Mohammed with a number of once-off concerts. A chance meeting led to collaboration with the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet and, with support from RTÉ and Music Network, the West Cork festival was born in 1996.

Which led, somewhat incredibly in Bantry, a town with a population of just 3,000, to another two festivals. Humphrys’ small non-profit company, West Cork Music, actually manages to run the Chamber Music Festival, the West Cork Literary Festival and the Masters of Tradition traditional music festival.

“I was always into poetry, I always read a lot. At the very first chamber music festival we had two extraordinary things. Séamus Heaney agreed to come and read Squarings. It’s long — 48 poems — and he read them between the movements of Bach’s six cello suites. It must have been a nightmare for the cellist.

“Also we did the first edition of Haydn’s Seven Last Words from the Cross with Michael Hartnett’s poem Mountains Fall on Us.” This latter programme returns this year, with Theo Dorgan reading the late Hartnett’s poem.

“So that first year we had two very distinguished poets as part of the festival and at some point they were kidnapped and brought to the library for a genuine poetry reading. The second year we had Michael Langley and Seán Dunne. The poetry was there from the very beginning, but it went on from being a handful of readings to become an international literary festival.”

Masters of Tradition came about after an introduction to the playing of Martin Hayes. “I was so impressed that I asked him to come and do a late night concert in 2000. The audience was full of all these classical violinists who were completely sideswiped by what he did with a fiddle. So I went up to Limerick to talk to him about having a traditional music festival.” The first one took place two years later.

How do they manage so much? “Probably because I do at least two if not three jobs,” Humphrys says with a sigh, not even mentioning the sheep farm he still manages at home. “I think the key thing I’ve learned is that one-off events in peripheral rural areas don’t work. We can’t put on one-off events without losing a lot of money. But if you put on a festival in a location that’s nice to visit, it works in your favour. I have a supportive board and a great team and there are kind people who give us money. But it’s harder than ever these days.”

Humphrys argues that the arts sector needs to put more effort into economic research. “The arts generally is a huge economic success story creating jobs, bringing in tourists, etc, but we don’t make enough noise about it and not enough organisations go to the trouble of putting together the figures. The best weapon is a set of figures, independently compiled, that show value for money, like our €6.60 return for every euro of government funding.”

*West Cork Chamber Music Festival runs Jun 28-Jul 5. westcorkmusic.ie


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